UK & World News
Firefighters Go On Strike In Row Over Pensions
Firefighters across England and Wales have walked out on strike in a bitter row with the Government over pensions.
Members of the Fire Brigades Union (FBU) left their stations and set up picket lines as they started a four-hour protest at midday.
The union is campaigning against changes it says will force firefighters to work longer, pay more into their pensions and receive less in retirement.
The move will also see firefighters having to work on frontline duties until they are 60 which could put the public at risk, the union argues.
The Government maintains that the changes are fair and will still give firemen and women decent pensions when they retire.
Fire brigades have had to draw up their own contingency plans to deal with the strike because military Green Goddess machines, used as cover in previous disputes, have been sold.
Some brigades, including London and Surrey, hired private contractors to stand in but the public has been warned that non-emergency calls may not be answered.
The London brigade, which is using 27 fire engines during the strike period, said it would not be able to respond to calls about flooding, trapped animals and rubbish fires.
Officials in the Department of Communities and Local Government stressed they had a "strategic back-up" that could be initiated if necessary.
Royal Navy and Royal Air Force firefighters with fully-trained Army crew members have been deployed as a reserve in England in case there is a major incident.
In Wales, they are acting as frontline firefighters with others poised if more support is required.
A war of words raged between the Government and the FBU as the strike went ahead.
Fire minister Brandon Lewis insisted the pensions package was still "one of the most generous" schemes in the public sector.
Firefighters earning £29,000 and retiring at 60 after a full career would receive a £19,000-a-year payout, rising to £26,000 with the state pension, he said.
"An equivalent private sector pension pot would be worth over half a million pounds and require firefighters to contribute twice as much," he added.
"The firefighter pension age of 60 was introduced in 2006 and is in line with the police and armed forces.
"We have been clear with the Fire Brigades Union our pension reforms are not introducing a national fitness standard.
"Firefighter fitness remains a local fire and rescue authority matter. Government is helping local employers and the union to work together on this issue."
General secretary Matt Wrack countered: "This initial strike is a warning shot to government. Firefighters could not be more serious about protecting public safety and ensuring fair pensions.
"Governments in Westminster and Cardiff have simply refused to see sense on these issues.
"It is ludicrous to expect firefighters to fight fires and rescue families in their late 50s: the lives of the general public and firefighters themselves will be endangered.
"None of us want a strike, but we cannot compromise on public and firefighter safety."
TUC general secretary Frances O'Grady added: "There won't be many members of the public who would feel confident about being rescued from a serious fire if the only route out of the inferno was down a ladder on the back of a firefighter who was about to turn 60."
Almost 80% of FBU members voted in favour of industrial action and union bosses have not ruled out further steps if the dispute continues.
Labour leader Ed Miliband urged them and the Government to get "round the table" to resolve the conflict.
He told Sky News: "What I say about any industrial dispute is that it's a sign of failure. Both sides should be getting round the table because we need an effective fire service that is actually going to serve people.
"What Government should be doing is not ramping up the rhetoric but getting round the table with the firefighters to try and prevent this happening and sort it out."
Firefighters in Scotland are not striking because union officials there are still discussing proposals put forward by the Scottish Government.